Archive for the ‘Regular life’ category

J. Reilly Lewis: An Appreciation

June 25, 2016

J. Reilly Lewis passed away on June 9, from a massive heart attack. The news shocked me because he exuded vitality every time I saw him perform. A little over two years ago, I took a job that happens to be across the street from the Church of the Epiphany on G Street, where Lewis and the Washington Bach Consort occasionally performed a Bach cantata as part of the church’s Tuesday noontime concert series. When my work schedule would permit (stupid 1 pm meetings), I always snuck out to hear Lewis do his thing.

You can’t be interested in Baroque and early music in the DMV and not have heard Lewis perform, conducting the WBC or the Cathedral Choral Society, playing keyboards in chamber settings, getting an organ to sing and thunder. I reviewed him accompanying Jennifer Ellis Kampani in Bach (a really transporting concert), with the WBC completing their Bach cycle and celebrating Christmas, and with the Cathedral Choral Society. You’ll notice that those are pretty warm reviews. The man was a giant ’round here, what can I say?

But I had never gotten to attend the Tuesday cantata concerts before, and they were a new revelation, where Lewis had all the time he wanted to talk about things he found interesting in the cantatas, introduce an organist of whom he was fond to play a prelude, get WBC members to discuss their instruments, or welcome the numerous school groups that also attended these performances. He had such a genuine joy both in the music and in performing it, and he had the further gift of being able to communicate that clearly to whoever happened to come into the church on a Tuesday afternoon (yes, including the homeless dudes).

I never reviewed any of those performances in part because they felt more like gifts than concerts; reviewing them would have been like reviewing a dinner a friend served you. Maybe I would have preferred certain things to be slightly different, but I walked out of all of those performances feeling grateful that the music of Bach existed and that we had such a warm, eloquent, and talented advocate of it to bring it to us, in the form of J. Reilly Lewis. And he brought that warmth, eloquentce, and talent to all the music he performed. I’ll always be grateful to have sat in the audience, especially for those noontime concerts, and heard and felt music through and with him. R.I.P.

Other notes: Anne Midgette, Charles Downey.


A Brief History of My Reaction When People Tell Me I am a “Young” Person Interested in Classical Music

July 5, 2014


My age My reaction
15 “Yes, but I’m a totally legitimate classical music fan nonetheless. Let me tell you how I liked the performer’s ritard in the slow movement. Spoiler alert: I did not like it.”
20 “Does this venue happen to provide tickets that are discounted based on my youth?”
25 “Yes, but I certainly don’t know anything about how to get other young people to come to these things. Particularly young women.”
30 “I’m not really that young, except in a classical music context. It’s kind of sad that you think I’m young, actually.”
35 (present day) “Yes. I am young. Thank you for noticing.”

The Nationals Pastime, or, From the New Season

May 15, 2012

Hola, amigos. I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but various life things have been dragging my attention from (a) classical concerts and (b) writing about classical music. Plus there was that fun detour where DMV Classical attempted to prove its worth as an Arts Blog in a challenge. Finishing in the bottom six blog entries in Round 2 (since they let two tied people swell the ranks of what should have been the Elite Eight, and one person actually quit on the contest midway) was initially a bitter pill to swallow, but the succeeding questions were not ones I want to write about anyway, so who cares. All any reader of DMV Classical needs to know about the question “Many countries have ministries of culture. Does America need a Secretary of Culture or Secretary of the Arts? Why or why not?” is that in Chocolate City, Stevie Wonder is the Secretary of Fine Arts. (Seated Ovation is right on target, though.)

One of the things that has stolen my attention from classical music and blogging is baseball. I go to 20 or 25 Nationals games a year even when they’re awful, and it just so happens that this year they are awesome, in first place for much of the year on the backs of their unmatched starting five. Attendance at Nationals games is a classical-free zone unless you count the soundtrack music to HBO’s John Adams miniseries, which always swells to accompany images of Nats players excelling in a pregame montage. (Or unless Glenn Donnellan is playing the Anthem, of course.) The most purely musical satisfaction I get during the games is probably the Earth, Wind & Fire hits played at the seventh-inning stretch.

During an idle moment (of which baseball has a blessed surplus), I began wondering: If I had the talent to become a pro ballplayer, could I possibly sneak in a classical work as an at-bat song, or a pitcher’s introduction song? Is there something that begins with a compact enough statement of its purpose and has enough energy, swagger, and sheer power that it can stand up alongside Roger Bernadina’s French song about dancing?

It turns out that you can think through a whole bunch of the classical canon and come upon nothing useful, for the following reasons:

  • Minor-key classical works often boast imposing beginnings (Bach’s BWV 565, Mussorgsky’s Bald Mountain) but lack the heroic dimension. In the case of these, your at-bat or relief appearance would sound like a horror film, which would be appropriate for many players on previous Nats teams, but mostly not this one. (Looking at you, Xavier Nady.)
  • Lots of pieces theoretically have the requisite energy and swagger but in fact would sound like some kind of ironic invitation to teatime, like the overture to “The Marriage of Figaro.”
  • Pieces that I think of as being in the heroic mode take way too long to develop. They also often have contrasting themes that spoil the mood. The Waldstein Sonata is a prime example here. The opening is too long for an at-bat song, where you have just a few seconds to get the job done, but then it falters almost immediately, which will not impress any opposing hitters who will be facing you in the top of the eighth.

I thought my errand was hopeless until the oeuvre of Antonin Dvorak popped into my head. The eighth Slavonic Dance was the first one to suggest itself, but even better is the fourth movement of his ninth symphony, the super-famous “From the New World.” This has it all: dark energy from the minor key but no tragic or horrific dimension, swagger and energy to spare, and a main theme so unfadeable that Kanye West sampled it. (Click the link — that really happened!) The main theme by itself would be enough for at-bat music, but I’d definitely enjoy coming out of the bullpen as the “Jaws”-y intro hyped itself into that resolute theme. At the very least, it would be superior to Ryan Mattheus’ song, which is Katy Perry’s “Firework” for some reason.

Concerts Upcoming

February 10, 2012

This weekend I am planning to attend Brian Ganz’s Chopin recital at Strathmore, the second in a series of concerts at which Ganz will play all of the Chopin works for piano. (That’ll be a while!) I missed the first one, which got good reviews from lots of folks, and I am always into checking out local musicians (Ganz is living in the great state of Maryland according to his bio). Plus it’s at Strathmore, which is always a good time due to its fab acoustics and easy transportation accessibility (not to mention relative proximity to Urban BBQ. Pre-concert ribs, here I come!).

There are a ton of interesting concerts coming up in the DMV. The filter I have been using to help me determine what to attend is to concentrate on local artists (born here, raised here, or living here), works by local composers, presentations that have something to do with the area, or (sometimes) just things I think are exceptionally interesting. There are too many interesting concerts for me to attend even when having applied this filter, given my workout schedule, creeping oldness and tiredness, and occasional attempts to have a social life of some sort. Nevertheless! If you’re involved in a concert you’d like me to review, please feel extremely free to e-mail me (see the About post) and give me a heads-up about it. I’ll do my best.

I Want a New Drug

February 23, 2011

I did not know this before today, but apparently there is a drug called Sonata. In case you didn’t know or didn’t click on the link, the drug is designed to combat…wait for it…sleep deficiency. It’s always good to see that modern culture still feels the urgency of the timeless classical masterworks.

On the other hand, I guess whoever named the drug hasn’t listened to a lot of actual sonatas. Some of them don’t even have any obvious melodies. Better to have named such a medication “Barcarolle” or something.

However, classical music does seem a natural discipline from which to steal drug names, given that both classical music and pharmaceuticals favor words that sound vaguely foreign and end in vowels. Here are my ideas for classical-inspired drug names of the future:

Drug name What it treats
Tremolo Fine motor disability
Passacaglia Constipation
Eusebestan Bipolar disorder
Tempogiusto Hyperactivity
Glassinex Monomania
Collegno Erectile dysfunction
Sonatina Nap deficiency

Do you have any ideas to help further line the pockets of Big Pharma? (Was that not the best solicitation?)

Kennicott Off-Pitch on Auto-Tune; or, Oh, The T-Pain of It All

August 31, 2010

Philip Kennicott, former classical critic for the Washington Post and current overall culture ponderer, knows a lot more about opera than I do, and he’s a wonderful writer; I don’t always agree with his pieces, but they’re normally thought-provoking. But (and you knew a “but” was coming) his article in yesterday’s Post about the intersection of operatic ideals and Auto-Tuned reality contained so many inaccuracies and misconceptions that it nearly ruined my breakfast. (Fortunately, Frosted Mini-Wheats are ultimately indomitable.) Here are the most problematic parts and my objections thereto:

[Auto-Tune] can also be used to turn spoken speech into sung melody, although the results usually have a rather robotic or metallic sound that is familiar in hip-hop recordings, especially those of T-Pain, a rapper and songwriter who uses the technology so extensively that it has become something of a joke in the industry.

T-Pain is not a rapper; he’s a singer who uses AutoTune to give his melodic lines the “robotic or metallic” tang to which Kennicott refers. The title of T-Pain’s first album is, in fact, “Rappa Ternt Sanga,” which (if you can sound it out) should have been a clue.

I also dispute the proposition that T-Pain’s extensive use of AutoTune is something of a joke in the industry. Rather, the discussion I’ve read lauds T-Pain as a pioneering virtuoso in the expressive use of AutoTune, with his followers lamented for their derivativeness. The most prominent rappers to make extensive use of AutoTune are Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West, and both have cited T-Pain as an exemplar. If, by “the industry,” Kennicott means some group of people outside hip-hop and R&B, maybe what he’s saying is true — I really don’t know.

Kennicott may have been confused by the fact that Weezy and Kanye both became famous as rappers, but both sing (just like T-Pain) in order to get melodic effects in AutoTune. Their endeavors thus differ from those of the Gregory Brothers, who do actually create song from speech.

This is not how the game is played on YouTube. The medium is fundamentally hungry for content, and Auto-Tune is the perfect technology to supply it. Based on the vocoder, a machine that was used to disguise radio transmissions during World War II, Auto-Tune can process speech into music quickly and without need for an actual singer. This has made it controversial: Some pop artists have vociferously protested its overuse.

When I first read this paragraph, I thought Kennicott had forgotten to insert the modifier “competent” before “singer,” because the chief way in which Auto-Tune plagues pop music is not by processing speech into song but allowing people who can’t stay on pitch to sound tolerable on records (see Ke$ha, for one of a million examples). In my readings, it’s this use that “pop artists” protest, not the use of Auto-Tune by folks screwing around on YouTube. (In the case of “The Bed Intruder Song,” no less than Paramore’s Hayley Williams has participated in a cover, one datum countering Kennicott’s assertion.)

This paragraph also reveals a more fundamental problem with Kennicott’s article: He writes like Auto-Tune itself roams the land looking to transform people’s speech into marketable song.  Auto-Tune is a tool, like a potato masher. You can use a potato masher to do great things, like make mashed potatoes, and you can use it to do terrible things, like overmash potatoes into an inedible gluey paste. (Incidentally, it might have been nice for Kennicott to further distinguish between the vocoder, a piece of hardware, and Auto-Tune, which is phase vocoder software sold by Antares Audio Technologies.)  Kennicott further misidentifies the problem in the conclusion of the article:

With Auto-Tune, “first the words, then the music” seems like a joke — the technological realization of an old operatic dream, but at the loss of something elemental, the actual human sympathy that makes us care about what people are singing.

Human beings (in this case, the Gregory Brothers, although they have many followers) are using Auto-Tune to realize that old operatic dream. Kennicott’s article leaves wide open the possibility that someone (apparently not the Gregory Brothers) could take speech and transform it into emotionally complex, affecting music. The right Auto-Tune enthusiast simply hasn’t come along yet. What Kennicott meant to write is something like “With songs like ‘Bed Intruder’…” That he didn’t seems to betray a lack of understanding or engagement, either of which are enough to make this article less that it could have been. Which is too bad, because its central point (as I understand it, “Bed Intruder” = prima le parole) is something I genuinely had not considered before.

In my readerly experience, there is a blithe assurance about much classical-critic writing about pop, seeming to come from the idea that this pop stuff can’t be that complicated. And others are complicit; the Post advertised Kennicott’s piece to me on my Facebook feed as “the most intelligent piece you’re ever likely to read about auto-tuning the news,” which I hope is not true, for reasons discussed above. (And although the Post’s Facebook minder mistakenly lowercased “Auto-Tune,” at least the article bothered to spell “T-Pain” correctly, which not all classical blogs do.)

One of the lines I’m proudest of on this blog is here: “In their recordings, the ladies of Trio Mediaeval sing with an almost eerie precision and purity, like some kind of divine rebuke to the use of AutoTune” [lack of hyphen sic]. That line uses common cultural currency to show how adept the Mediaeval ladies are at a specific type of vocal virtuosity: Anyone who knows pop can understand one reason to listen to these performers. People who know anything about Auto-Tune and read Kennicott’s article, by contrast, probably will be put off by the basic lack of understanding therein. (Reader comments on the article, entirely negative as of this writing, express frustration with Kennicott’s disapproval of the “Bed Intruder Song,” but it’s not hard to imagine that he might have been taken more seriously if he’d shaped up his Auto-Tune discussion, perhaps running it by Chris Richards first.) If we classical music enthusiasts are going to get people fired up to learn more about this music we enjoy so much, we’re first going to have to stop misunderstanding the music they like. (Not to mention that we’ll need to stop deriding it, but I already covered that.

Also, I saw the Janacek reference coming a mile away.

It’s Getting Hot in Here, But Please Don’t Mention It—We’re Classical Music Fans

August 19, 2010

On Tuesday I heard the best concert that’s graced my ears this year, and it wasn’t even in the DMV. Summer travel brought me to Santa Fe, and as part of that town’s chamber music festival, Yuja Wang gave a dazzling hourlong lunchtime recital of works by Robert Schumann (in his 200th birthday year), Alexander Scriabin, and Sergei Prokofiev.

In Schumann’s Op. 111 “Drei Fantasiestücke” (Three Fantasy Pieces), she brought a lightness to Schumann’s thickets of notes that one rarely hears, thanks to fingers that seem able to supply the most difficult runs and combos without any trouble. (I heard this capacity firsthand in music not nearly as fetching when she premiered Jennifer Higdon’s piano concerto with the NSO last fall.) Wang made all those note-thickets sway beguilingly with the melody, as in a breeze, where other pianists seem audibly to be picking their way through the tangles, trying not to tear their clothes on brambles (to abuse a metaphor). Wang assembled a selection of three preludes, an étude, and a poème from various Scriabin opuses, effectively contrasting light and dark colors and quiet and stormy moods while teasing out the shapes of Scriabin’s sometimes-elusive pieces.

And her performance of Prokofiev’s sixth sonata was the stuff of fantasies, aflame throughout with color and rhythm yet keenly controlled. She created an incredible variety of steely tones in the stentorian first movement, larked effortlessly in the second with just that hint of sarcasm that we all love in Prokofiev, ruminated in magnetic quiet tones during the slow movement, and played a blistering finale that launched me out of my seat to cheer. Various social engagements have prevented me from attending Wang’s DMV recitals in the past; the Prokofiev, in particular, convinced me that it’s worthwhile to dis people in order to hear Wang play. (And to think I could have heard it before, at Sixth and I!)

The Yuja Wang concert experience is not all about hearing her play, though; in addition to being a wonderful pianist, she is hot. On Tuesday, she wore a vivid purple dress that had the twin advantages, from the interested viewer’s perspective, of being strapless and short; when she sat to play, she showed a lot of well-toned leg, to which my eyes occasionally wandered throughout the concert. She’s got a pretty face, too, with an adorable toothy smile and a nice contemplative closed-mouthed look. Her record label, Deutsche Grammophon, featured the latter on the cover of her latest CD, along with a decorous dollop of cleavage.

I can’t imagine she’s looked less hot in any of her other recitals, but I didn’t see in a recent bout of Web-wandering for reviews and interviews (Joe Banno came closest). The people, however, have discussed Wang’s attractiveness in many comment sections, often in the kind of juvenile terms I employ in casual conversation but eschew when writing for this highly respectable blog. (Wait, what?) And, in an ironic twist, ever since I mentioned the phrase’s prominence in Google AutoSuggest in that NSO review, the most popular search phrase to reach this blog has been “yuja wang boyfriend.”

The lack of “official” discussion does not surprise me. Using my amazing powers to blindly attribute motives, I have determined that classical folk don’t like to discuss whether performers are hot for the following reasons:

  1. A widespread belief that people who are not as attractive as Wang should be able to have successful solo careers if they can play like Wang. I am sympathetic to this viewpoint, but one must also acknowledge that attractive people have had an easier time than less attractive people throughout human history.
  2. Discomfort with the thought that we might focus on the performer, when the important thing is the music being performed and how the performer serves it. You can read more about this here if you are interested. As an audience member, I believe it is possible to appreciate both at once. Really. Our brains are that big.
  3. Unawareness, or unwillingness to acknowledge, that visual presentation affects how we hear music. This baffles me, and I will take it up in more detail later.
  4. Classical music’s incredible discomfort with the body, as opposed to the mind. To some extent, the institutional classical-music dichotomy between pop and classical is the same as the false dichotomy between the body and the mind, as you can see by the fact that pop opponents always choose dance music as the target for their ire (the current fave is Lady Gaga). The idea, as best I can tell, is that the mind is better than the body and thus should be used exclusively to comprehend classical music and its performances. The problem is that it is very difficult to actually enforce such judgments, because we need the body to do stuff for us, like eat and breathe. (The body has also been shown to be a superior dancer.) And if it also likes to throw in a little lust, what’s the harm? The mind is there to stop the body from doing anything stupid like deciding that a gorgeous pianist nailed that scherzo when he or she actually didn’t, right?

So classical music reviews should start decorously mentioning it when the performers are attractive, as I’ve been doing since I started this blog. (Maybe I should start mentioning it indecorously, just to drag the debate forward.) Obviously, when a performer is less attractive, we don’t need to mention that, because when in human discourse is it polite to mention that? But giving the body just a little more of a toehold in our discourse might make our discussions feel more real and immediate in other ways, too. And at the very least, those of us (like me) who have both superficial and profound interests in classical music performers would be getting the info they need.